Review: David Torrance – Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union

Britain Rebooted

There are two main themes of David Torrance’s short book on UK federalism, one negative, one positive. The first, the negative, is a critique – sometimes implicit, often explicit – of the common argument that federalism should not be taken seriously because it’s not going to happen any time soon. Let’s call this argument, for the sake of brevity, “impossibilism”. The impossibilist dogma is pervasive in the Yes campaign, inspiring sneers and eye-rolls whenever the federalist option is suggested. The SNP are actively complicit in perpetuating impossibilism, with Salmond reminding Scots at every opportunity that the UK government refused to allow a third “devo max” option on the referendum ballot paper. This, goes the typical argument, is evidence of unionist dishonesty over “more powers”. If they really wanted further devolution, they’d let us vote on it.

It’s an argument that requires more than a few intellectual contortions, and Torrance dismisses it with relative ease. It is, he writes, an “inherently conservative argument”, for it assumes that a state which has permitted universal suffrage, devolution and even a binding independence referendum is incapable of codifying, expanding and consolidating what is already a vaguely federal constitutional setup. But these common-sense rebuttals form the limits of Torrance’s persuasiveness, for his proposals detailing precisely how federalism might triumph fall far short of what would be required for a federal programme to command the popular support necessary to make it work, and, crucially, to outpace its nationalist counterpart on questions of economic and social change.

The second, “positive” theme of the book is a coherent, if somewhat veiled, statement of Torrance’s own political philosophy, in which he outlines how federalism could empower federated nations and regions of the UK to innovate new ways of promoting social mobility and reducing inequality across a “rebooted” union. Here he strikes a notably similar political pose to that of one Richard M. Nixon, whose “New Federalism” sought to fuse a classically liberal emphasis on meritocracy and personal freedom with a nuanced subsidiarity. Under Nixon, welfare was centralised, but distributed in cash payments to be freely spent rather than through specific services (a basic minimum income was even proposed) and local authority block grants were generally freed of conditionality, while affirmative action was advocated for African Americans in the construction industry and small business, and segregated schools were forcibly integrated. Torrance retreads many of the ideological principles underpinning these reforms in his own proposals, and for those who, like me, have been intrigued by his hitherto inscrutable ideological prerogatives, the result makes for an interesting and often surprising read.

On Nationalist Coat-tails

The opening chapter of the book is devoted to a potted history of British federalism, an idea “as old as Britain”, in which he seeks to demonstrate that the terrain of British constitutional politics has been far from inhospitable to federalist ambitions. However, this history does suggest that most serious high-level proposals for UK federalism have come from politicians and intellectuals with their backs against the wall: late-19th and early-20th century supporters saw it as a possible answer to the Irish Question, but it was only taken “much more seriously” when the question had become “louder and therefore more urgent,” both immediately before the first world war and immediately after it. These proposals were undermined by what had quickly become a critical mass of Irish nationalist sentiment, and the focus of federalist attention shifted to Stormont. In the postwar era, even Tories were comfortable describing Northern Ireland in federal terms, but fearful of extending the arrangement to Scotland or Wales. It fell to the Liberals to advocate “Home Rule All Round,” but – again – only in reaction to breakthroughs for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 1960s. The Liberals and their successors in the Liberal Democrats remained the most committed and proactive supporters of federalism throughout the rest of the century, but persistent minority status meant that their constitutional ambitions made little headway with a political class all too happy to drag its feet.

The Royal Commission on the Constitution, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1969 in response to Nationalist successes, argued that federalism was “foreign to our own tradition of unitary government”, reasserting the old orthodoxy of constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey. Dicey’s preoccupation with the overriding sovereignty of the British (or, for the anglocentric Dicey, essentially English) parliament is subject to plenty of critique by Torrance, who rightly notes its growing irrelevance in light of the various constitutional transformations of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Wilson and many others in the Labour Party shared Dicey’s conservative views on the constitution, caricaturing federalism as over-complex and “artificial” and glorying in the supposed perfection of the existing system. That said, Labour’s position here should not be over-simplified; the party’s half-hearted support for Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1976 was not only a response to nationalist advances, but also grew from a long-standing Home Rule tradition in the Labour Party, particularly on its left (the crucial relationship between socialism and federalism will be discussed further below).

The failure of devolution in the 1970s didn’t mean the demand had dried up entirely, however, and Labour’s devolutionary current resurfaced again with New Labour, this time taking English regions into account as well as the nations. The resounding No vote in the 2004 referendum on a North East Assembly may have “stymied…any prospect of a federal UK” under that government, but the vote itself still represented – alongside devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – some degree of progress towards UK federalism throughout the post-68 era. The eagerness with which impossibilists seize on 2004’s result as evidence against federalism misses the point; a federalism including the nations and regions of the UK is more imaginable today than it has been for most of the country’s history. Labour’s latest proposal – under consideration for their 2015 manifesto – to transform the House of Lords into an “indirectly elected” senate giving equal representation to the nations and regions is the continuation of this trend.

But if federalists have made progress, they haven’t done it under their own steam. Federalism has remained largely reactive, not because its advocates are unwilling – the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, and elements of Labour and the labour movement, have advocated federalism or home rule on its own merits for decades – but because UK-wide federalism has been incapable of marshalling popular will in the way that nationalism has. Where federalism by itself appears to many as an expensive sideshow of constitutional tinkering (particularly obvious in 2004’s “white elephant” campaign against the North East Assembly), nationalism mobilises people – often from a strong working-class base – behind a relatively holistic programme of promised economic, social and political change. Nationalism has offered a cure, however illusory, for the various maladies of capitalist development and crisis which federalists have been unable or – due in large part to vested class and political interests – unwilling to match. Torrance makes little effort to grapple with this problem, particularly given that his vision for a transition to federalism is driven not by the collective efforts of working people but by well-intentioned politicians and civil servants, a point we will come back to later.

A Southern Problem or a British One?

Torrance does make some effort to deal with the argument that English people “don’t want” a federal England, but this is limited to observations about English unhappiness with the present constitutional setup. There remains no groundswell of federalist politics in England, or indeed in Scotland. Polls may show a Scottish preference for “devo max”-style federalism and an English discontent with the status quo, but that doesn’t mean people will get out and knock doors to that end. But when nationalists (or “not-nationalists-but…”) criticise federalism for its lack of popular support, they rarely try to explain why such support is absent or, indeed, why this matters. Occasionally they fall back on the New Left arguments of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, themselves a kind of haunted-mirror inversion of Dicey’s, about the innate conservatism of the British state. But if the British state is so conservative that it cannot reform itself, how have devolution and a legally-binding independence referendum been tolerated?

Idealism is a funny thing. Not “idealism” in the vague, optimistic sense, defined as a politics of hope and change and “making the world a better place”, but idealism as the philosophical tradition which posits ideas rather than real, material forces as possessing a determining agency in human history. The prevalence of both in the Yes campaign is not coincidental. One of vulgar idealism’s most peculiar attributes is that, while idealists condemn materialists for downplaying the role of human agency and free will in history, they have a tendency to place an inordinate amount of faith in the agency of institutions. In this crude, popular form, little nuance is permitted; just as “Scotland” means “us”, so too must “Westminster” be “them”, and there can be no internally contradictory tendencies in either of these things. The logic is, supposedly, that because institutions set the parameters of what is (at least legally) possible in politics, institutions determine the ideas with which law-abiding humans, and therefore citizens, shape the world.

Dicey’s fetishisation of English parliamentary sovereignty as the basis of British political life is a fine example of this. In impossibilism, Dicey’s fragile and aging parliamentary ideal is kept alive only thanks to the daily sacrifice of every idea which falls outside its miniscule parameters: yesterday the union, tomorrow federalism; and its high priests are the impossibilists. Anthropomorphised by the black magic of neo-Diceyan idealism, the palace of Westminster and huge swathes of Whitehall lift themselves up onto hitherto unseen legs and, sending chunks of masonry and scaffolding splashing into the Thames and crashing through shopfronts, these institutional titans make obscene demands of British politicians: You, puny humans, must deny Scotland the governments “it” votes for. You must lie about your desire for “more powers”. You must remain forever preoccupied with “neoliberal dogma”. You may never change, for we are The Institutions, we are immortal, and we are in charge!

For example, Iain Macwhirter’s recent critique of federalism asserted that there is “no scintilla of a chance of federalism being introduced by Westminster of its own volition.” Later in the same article, “Westminster has not the slightest intention…” and so on, and so on. “England” and “Scotland” are spoken of in a similarly clumsy, simplistic way; when you make up the units of analysis as you go along, it’s easy to meet a print deadline. Throughout impossibilist rhetoric there is a persistent desire to obscure what is really meant by “Westminster,” but Macwhirter lets the cat out of the bag: the problem with “Westminster” is, in the final instance, that “Scotland really isn’t on England’s radar…English people really don’t care [about the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question]”. The trouble, in short, is with the way English people vote. There is no room here for differences or shifts of opinion within England, not to mention the continuing direction of Labour (via Adonis) and even the Conservatives (via Heseltine) towards English regional devolution.

The idealism that pervades a great deal of Scottish constitutional thinking, even in its more radical forms and particularly amongst supporters of independence, tends to close down any serious questions about the possibilities of popular constitutional change. A fetishisation of British institutions is used to obscure a blanket pessimism about English people and British parties, while a simplistic homogenisation of “Scotland” threatens to contain demands for a transfer of powers in the hands of those who claim to speak for the nation, halting whatever progress devolution or independence might entail before it can reach the majority.

Radical Federalism

Furthermore, there’s no clear effort by Macwhirter and his ilk to actually consider how federalism might be implemented. It might seem obvious during a constitutional referendum that all major constitutional changes come from referenda, or at least from popular support, but that’s not necessarily the case. If a party was interested enough in federalism – as Labour increasingly are, for all nations and regions of the UK – and offered a programme of economic and social reform alongside it in a manifesto which could gather popular support, a majority government could win an election on non-constitutional issues before simply imposing a federal system, regardless of the enthusiasm or lack thereof amongst certain sections of the electorate. Most English voters at least aren’t hostile to federalism, and there’s growing evidence that many are unhappy with their present constitutional status.

This unhappiness doesn’t translate into English constitutional demands because constitutional change in itself is boring. The appeal and ferment of the independence debate lies in the economic, social and political opportunities it presents, not the prospect of constitutional change alone. Things are no different for federalism, and that’s why constitutional change holds relatively little power in England. For English voters there is no alternate state, dressed up in promises of social citizenship and national renewal, which they can grab onto as many Scots do. The impossibilists – those who profess a mild interest in federalism but believe that it could not happen – believe that a federalist programme, if possible, would deliver much the same agenda as a nationalist programme. But this conflation is the reason that federalism seems impossible – the impossibilists think that the only thing that could deliver constitutional change is national sentiment, whereas what could actually deliver federalism is a far-reaching programme of social, economic and political change. A successful federalism must be a radical, federal socialism.

Torrance’s “New Federalism”

This is where Torrance’s argument is weakest, which is strange, because he does in fact smuggle several chapters of fairly far-reaching policy proposals – ranging from tax rises on the rich to affirmative action for state-educated people in higher education and beyond – into a book which is ostensibly about constitutional change. But these proposals all exist within a fairly technocratic framework. The goal of progressive policy for Torrance is not the radical transformation of society, or even greater equality per se, but the old-fashioned liberal dream of meritocracy. Private education is bad, not because it reproduces ruling class unity, but because it inhibits social mobility. The distinction between social mobility and social justice is not discussed, but a preoccupation with the former suggests a degree of comfort with the existence of class society just so long as everyone has the opportunity to be in a higher class.

Particularly revealing is his uncritical acceptance of Will Hutton’s assertion that “socialism and neo-liberalism have demonstrably failed,” and that we are now faced with the Quixotic mission of “making capitalism work”. Change is to be made by moderate but “bold” politicians and experts – he draws extensively on the policy recommendations and research of both – rather than popular movements or, perish the thought, an empowered and self-serving class. Tories and Liberal Democrats are oddly over-represented in his discussions of traditionally left-wing issues like challenging private school dominance and reducing income inequality, and it is tempting to suspect that for all his progressive suggestions, Torrance still struggles to escape his past entanglements with the Scottish right.

When it comes to the implementation of federalism itself, his policy proposals are justifications for constitutional change rather than, as suggested above, vehicles for it. This federalism will come about through “baby steps,” as he believes it has throughout British history. More significantly, it will require “cross-party agreement,” essentially guaranteeing that any radical potential is sucked out by the vicissitudes of compromise. Torrance here succumbs to the temptation of gradualism: just as the SNP, facing public scepticism over independence, sought to moderate and minimise the impact of what should have been a profound societal transformation, so too does Torrance hope to convince the haters with a relatively smooth, simple transition to a constitutional arrangement that will subsequently do little to help resolve the overlapping economic, social and political crises of modern Britain.

Federal Possibilities

The most important question for advocates of a federal union is not whether federalism can be achieved, but by whom and for whom; a possible Tory or liberal federalism may promote a race to the bottom between constituent states on wages, taxation and working standards; a possible Labour federalism, as hinted at by Powers for a Purpose, might create a nationwide “base” below which tax, welfare and wages may not be lowered, but with the ability to raise them, as well as flexibility over other aspects of industrial policy; but it could also be a technocratic, regressive federalism, hinted at in the Adonis review, which focuses on handing local powers and wealth to business rather than workers.

The overriding problem with all of these is that they remain federalisms-from-above, not from below. If Miliband’s Labour was able to command the same degree of popular enthusiasm as the Yes campaign, it would at least find itself in power under a substantial weight of progressive expectation. But as things stand, One Nation Labour may win a small majority simply because it’s less awful than the Tories. Thus the only force in the UK which seems ready to implement something approaching federalism will most likely do so in a managerial and broadly conservative fashion, just as it did with devolution.

The second most important question for Scottish federalists is whether this, or the hope of overturning it in favour of a more radical federal system of the possible future, is worth supporting over another “constitutional” change which already has a rough wind of economic, social and political demands in its sails.

Torrance has secured himself a prominent position in the referendum debate, partly through the strategic use of nice jumpers and expertly crafted hair, but largely on merit. His much-maligned scepticism about Scotland’s “progressive” consensus is welcome, and places him in a broad but often silent (or silenced) third camp of cynics, sceptics and grumblers of which we are also a part. Britain Rebooted is a thoughtful, nuanced (and generously short) work which deserves far better than the lazy impossibilist critiques to which the author’s proposals have been subjected, but it falls short where it could be at its most innovative; a couple of pages dedicated to the actual forces which might produce a federal UK is simply not enough for such an important topic, particularly given the nature of the critiques ranged against it. What is particularly evident is that there remains a pressing need for sharp, radical thinking in Scotland about the nature and direction of not only Scottish but also British politics that evades the reductionism of “Westminster vs Scotland”, but which can also break free of a dependence on expert-led and top-down tinkering to move towards an informed, intelligent popular radicalism.

Rory Scothorne

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